The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq told Christiane Amanpour that Iraqi forces are ready to take control of combat operations in their country, even as violence has spiked in recent week.
U.S. forces handed over all combat duties to Iraqis this weekend. "We do believe [the Iraqi military is] ready to assume full operations in Iraq," Gen. Ray Odierno said this morning.
In an exclusive "This Week" interview, the general said that the Iraqis' assumption of responsibility for the security of Iraq was not sudden.
"We've been working for a very long with the Iraqi security forces," he said. "For the last 20 months, we've been slowly and deliberately handing over more and more responsibility to them, and they have stepped up," Odierno said via satellite from Baghdad.
"We continue to help them and that will continue after [the first of] September," he said, referring to the deadline by which U.S. forces will supposedly end combat operations in the country.
Two huge blasts rocked Iraqi's second largest city, Basra, on Saturday, killing at least 43 people.
"I think it probably was" a terrorist attack, Odierno said. "My guess, it was some sort of an improvised explosive device that went off."
There was more violence in Iraq this weekend: car bombs and improvised explosive devices across the country killed at least eight people, according to The Associated Press.
"We have ups and downs here," Odierno said. "As I step back, having been here since the dark days of 2006 and 2007, to where we are today, what I see is a broad change in the security environment in Iraq."
"However," Odierno added, "there are still groups out there that are conducting terrorist acts against the people of Iraq and they are doing this to stop the political way forward ... to stop democracy moving forward and to cause the government of Iraq not to continue its progress. And that's what we're seeing playing out on the ground now."
Five months after March elections in Iraq, a government has yet to be formed. Amanpour asked the general how much the political deadlock worried him and whether it has created a political vacuum.
Odierno dodged the question but emphasized how positive it was that the Iraqi military had not taken sides during the drawn-out process.
"During this governmental formation timeframe, the Iraqi security forces have acted neutral," he said. "We've seen no degradation in their ability to execute the security profile and I think that's actually an extremely positive step forward for them."
She asked him the lack of a government was "providing space for insurgents to reorganize, as many suggest." Amanpour pressed, "So, how concerned are you?"
Odierno downplayed the current wave of violence.
"Well I would just tell you, again, what we can't do is overreact to incidents," he said. "There are going to be incidents that occur here. There is level of violence and a level of terrorism here that's going to occur.
"Over the last six to seven months, the success that we've had against al Qaeda in Iraq specifically, in decapitating their leadership, has, in fact, affected them. The kind of operations that they now conduct are very different than what they did just six months ago. Their ability to surge and do this over a sustained period of time is limited," the general said.
Odierno attributed the long process of establishing a governing coalition to close elections.
"The political progress is slow because of the delaying of formation of the government. But I would say that's because we had legitimate, credible elections. The results were very close, and so now it's made it very difficult to form the government," he said.
Will the government be formed by the end of this month, when the U.S. plans to officially end all combat operations in Iraq?
"Our numbers of withdrawing is not linked to the [Iraqi] governmental formation process," Odierno told Amanpour.
He said he thinks "we'll see some first steps towards forming a government by 1 September, but our numbers are not linked to that formation of the government. Our numbers are linked to the capacity of the Iraqi security forces being able to sustain stability, and I think they are moving towards that capacity."
"I remind everybody that we'll have 50,000 troops on the ground post 1 September -- and that's a very significant presence to continue to assist the Iraqi security forces as we move forward," he said.
Odierno took a strong stand when asked about outside actors influencing Iraqi politics.
"I remind everyone that we still have a significant presence here. We will not allow undue malign influence on the Iraqi government as they attempt to form their government," the general said. "What we're trying to do is provide them with space and time for them to do that."
Odierno emphasized that U.S. troops were also remaining in Iraq to ensure "all the other nations respect their sovereignty as they go about forming their government."
On Saturday, an American soldier was killed in Babil province, south of Baghdad, bringing the total number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003 to 4,414, according to the AP.